Why USF’s special teams consistency means more to Jeff Scott than you’d think

The Bulls haven’t won games with special teams. But they haven’t lost them, either.
USF's Brian Battie returned a kickoff for a touchdown against Tulsa. That's one of the biggest moments of the Bulls' solid special-teams season.
USF's Brian Battie returned a kickoff for a touchdown against Tulsa. That's one of the biggest moments of the Bulls' solid special-teams season. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published Nov. 4, 2021

TAMPA — As USF coach Jeff Scott looks for growth in the final month of his second season, he sees an encouraging step that’s easy for Bulls fans to overlook.

“I feel like our special teams has been the most consistent of the three phases, which that’s a really good sign,” Scott said.

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The numbers back up the first part of Scott’s claim. ESPN’s SP+ rank the Bulls’ special teams 36th in the country. That’s much better than how those advanced metrics view USF’s offense (No. 108) and defense (No. 111). Football Outsiders views the unit even more favorably (26th). USF sits in the top 20 in punt return average (13.4), returned a kickoff for a touchdown against Tulsa and blocked a field goal at BYU.

Those are all positives on their own. But they’re even more impressive to Scott in the context of the Bulls’ struggles.

“Typically when you find a team that’s rebuilding like we are and maybe thin in some spots,” Scott said, “the group that suffers the most is special teams.”

That unit suffers because most players don’t sign with a program to block on punt returns or chase kickoffs. They sign to play offense or defense. The depth chart starts there and flows down to special teams.

USF has not yet missed a field goal or extra point this season.
USF has not yet missed a field goal or extra point this season. [ CHRIS O'MEARA | AP ]

Because a team’s best players usually aren’t on field goal or punt teams, those are potential weaknesses on units filled with reserves.

“You see a lot of miscues there because the (top) players are all playing offense and defense,” Scott said.

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The miscues can be fatal mistakes. Blocked kicks negate scoring chances. Botched returns create bad field position. Busted coverages lead to short fields for the opponent.

And that’s where the special-teams consistency impresses Scott. USF’s kickoff coverage unit has allowed two long returns — about average nationally — but zero touchdowns. The punt coverage unit has allowed only one long return — also around the national average — and zero scores.

The Bulls haven’t had a kick blocked. They’re also one of only nine teams in the country that haven’t missed a field goal, and they haven’t missed an extra point, either.

Avoiding costly special-teams mistakes doesn’t lead to wins by itself, as USF’s 2-6 record shows. But it’s enough to keep them in games.

USF’s consistency will be tested Saturday against No. 20 Houston and standout returner Marcus Jones. The Cougars upset SMU last week on Jones’ 100-yard kickoff return touchdown with 17 seconds left, and Jones’ nine career return touchdowns are tied for the most in NCAA history. It’s hard to see USF having a chance at a marquee win if Jones records his 10th.

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Related: How much closer is USF to a breakthrough after ECU loss?

The Bulls understand how important it will be to contain Jones. Scott has the entire team participate in special-teams meetings so they see how it affects the team as a whole. Through eight games, that phase of the game has been one of the Bulls’ biggest strengths.

“Now our job is to get our offense and defense to play to a consistent level,” Scott said, “and then we’ll be a lot closer to where we need to be.”

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